The rapid pace of growth and development in the business software field has reached an inflection point. Innovative digital solutions are no longer only accessible to large corporations. Now, virtually any business can use tools like workflow automation, software robotics and even AI to work faster and smarter.
The days of manually performing time-draining, data-intensive processes are over. We have entered the Age of the Digital Worker.
What is a digital worker?
Because digital solutions and services evolve so fast, there’s no universally accepted definition of a digital worker. Virtual employees can be built using a range of tools and technologies, depending on your needs.
Some digital workers execute rule-based tasks independently behind-the-scenes, while others collaborate with employees, carrying out the routine components of complex business processes. A common goal is to lighten the load and reduce the number of human labour hours wasted on menial, high-volume, often data-centric tasks.
Beyond automating human activities, however, digital workers can also carry out entirely new workstreams if they’re augmented with artificial intelligence (AI), such as machine learning (ML) or natural language processing (NLP) capabilities. A digital worker augmented with ML abilities could, for example, analyse large volumes of data at speed to suggest future courses of action. Alternatively, a virtual assistant could use NLP to understand and respond to ad hoc conversational requests from employees or customers, for instance.
Digital worker capabilities
When you’re building a digital worker, which technologies are involved?
Depending on the type of process you are transforming and your broader business goals, you could use a combination of the following tools and capabilities.
Robotic process automation:
RPA software bots can automatically execute a sequence of process steps, operating securely on the same systems and applications that you use day-to-day, without the need for application programming interface (API) integration. This means that your RPA-powered digital worker can seamlessly access your data and the features of your work systems without impacting the underlying architecture. And provided the task or process is rule based with no variation, RPA can automate your work at speed, with complete accuracy.
This technology has business process orchestration capabilities. Leading low-code platforms make it easy for you to build custom digital forms and workflows that can automate the flow of work and content between employees, software bots and other resources. This type of system helps to hold all your tools together to create digital workers with multiple capabilities.
AI is an umbrella term for a range of different advanced technology capabilities which mimic human skills and allow you to digitise a much wider range of work. These include, among other examples:
- Machine learning (ML) models, which “learn” from data to identify patterns and make predictions, without being configured to reach these conclusions.
- Intelligent optical character recognition (OCR), which deciphers and extracts content from various unstructured formats into standardised digital text or data.
- Natural language processing (NLP), which analyses and synthesises natural language (in text or speech format). NLP is often used to power chatbots and automatic translation services.
How digital workers deliver business value
Through automated task and data processing, digital workers can complete processes faster, in fewer steps. They can also work tirelessly 24/7, if necessary.
For example, you could build a virtual accounts payable assistant to optimise a New Supplier Request process. Outlined below is an example of how the process would be carried out manually vs. digitally.
- Receives New Supplier Request form in electronic format via email or hardcopy via post.
- Downloads attachment or scans the hardcopy in and saves to file server.
- Manually reviews the content of the form for validation checks.
- Logs into back office system.
- Manually transposes the data contained in the form into the company system and saves.
- Emails the AP Manager to notify that the status requires approval to set the supplier up.
- AP Manager logs in and approves the status and confirms approval to AP Assistant via email.
- AP Assistant emails requestor to confirm supplier status is active.
- Reads the incoming email containing the New Supplier Request form and downloads the form from the email.
- Reviews the content of the form for data validation.
- Logs into the back-office system and creates a new record.
- Reads the data from the form and transposes it to create a new supplier.
- Moves the email request to a ‘processed’ folder and saves the original form in the file network.
- Sends an email notification to a human worker to sanction the supplier addition.
Other benefits include:
Scale with ease:
Once you have developed a digital worker, components of this solution can be quickly replicated and scaled up to meet increased demand.
Increase visibility and compliance:
When tasks and processes are executed digitally, the software automatically provides you with a digital audit trail of all actions, as well as analytics and reports that support intelligent decision-making. For compliance purposes, you can instantly demonstrate how the process was carried out, who was involved and what data was used by whom.
While machine learning and other AI capabilities can make your digital workers more intelligent and capable of handling more process components, you may only need RPA or workflow automation to begin with. These technologies can be easily integrated with more intelligent tools later, as these are required.
Gain optimum value from your human workers:
When digital workers automate tasks that were previously carried out by employees, you can re-direct people to more important work. In a process that involves customers, for example, humans can focus on the relationship building activities (such as up-selling or complaint-handling), while their digital colleagues manage the data-centric tasks (such as processing transactions or compiling reports). By removing the robotic tasks from human workloads, your people can contribute to process improvement in new ways.
Be willing to redefine roles and upskill staff:
McKinsey & Company estimates that 60% of all jobs have at least 30% automatable activities. By delegating these process components to digital workers, human roles will change. Some employees, for example, may move into a supervisory role, where they monitor and approve the work completed by their digital colleagues. If you’re open to training and upskilling your human workforce, you could completely transform the way you operate.